New Arrivals

Damage Control II: The Other Side
by Renegade

Disclaimer: The characters aren't mine and I gain nothing but enjoyment from their use.

Rating: PG for the occasional bad word

Spoilers: Companion piece to Damage Control posted back in February. Incorporates some actual dialogue and description from the episode The Sentinel by Blair Sandburg, and makes a couple of minor references to previous episodes.

Feedback: Public or private, positive or negative, is fine. Hold the flames 'til summer and we'll have a barbecue.

Jim resolutely shut out the image of his partner's -- ex-partner's, he corrected savagely -- desolate eyes as he walked away down the hospital corridor. Just as he had shut out Blair's voice and the truths, spoken and implied, that the voice had tried to impart. He was running on instinct; no doubt Blair would say he was manifesting one of his "fear-based responses."

It was, after all, what he did best. Don't think about the tangle of emotions that threatened to cripple him within their confines. Don't try to analyze the why's and the wherefore's behind them. And for God's sake, don't listen to the yammering voice of his conscience, which he had unceremoniously sent packing. Those were distractions, serving only to divert him from the job at hand: finding and stopping Zeller before he succeeded in killing someone.

Jim didn't need the voice of his conscience -- a voice that sounded suspiciously like Blair's -- to tell him that he was being a bastard, and a selfish, irrational bastard at that. The proof of that he'd seen stamped on Blair's solemn, sorrowful face. It was there in the dejected slump of the younger man's shoulders each time he tried to explain, to apologize, to grasp the fraying strands of their friendship, only to run headlong into the defensive wall Jim had thrown up against all comers.

Just let me get through this, Jim thought. Just let me take down Zeller.

Once that danger was past, he knew that he'd have to take the time to think and to analyze, and to chart a course through the rocky shoals that exposure had set before him. It was his career, his future, his life, that was at stake here. He'd be damned if he let the media, the police commissioner, long-haired anthropologists, or anyone else dictate how he'd live it.

But first he had to navigate through the ever-present press vultures who had been dogging his every move since the news of his "gift" first broke. Even if they weren't already intent on him, the sniper attack at police headquarters and the wounding of a veteran captain of detectives and a visiting exchange officer certainly had drawn them out like vultures to fresh carrion. It was easy enough to dodge the reporters clustered in the hospital lobby; their attention was focused on the official spokesperson giving non-answers to their questions about the shooting victims. The intrepid bloodhounds who had staked out his all-too-recognizable truck -- Why the hell didn't I think to check out an unmarked police cruiser? -- exhibited more tenacity than their fellows.

Jim shouldered his way through the mass of cameras, microphones, and bodies, his jaw clenching as he bit back the harsh words that wanted to escape. Nearly blinded by flashbulbs, his ears ringing from the cacophony of their shouted questions, Jim finally managed to gain the relative peace and security of his vehicle, locking the door as soon as it closed, and cranking the engine to life more vigorously than was strictly necessary. This time he didn't bother to warn them of impending danger to their toes; he simply put the truck in gear and drove away, not really caring whether or not their instincts for self-preservation were stronger than their hunger for a story.

Self-preservation, he thought grimly. The name of the game is self-preservation. Knuckles whitened as his hands gripped the steering wheel more tightly, and a long breath escaped noisily from his flaring nostrils. It seemed that not all of his brain was content to leave the analysis for later. Isn't that the game you're playing here? that damned internal voice jeered. Protect your secrets. Protect the image you've spent your whole life building. Cover your ass, and don't trust a single, living soul too far. Because sooner or later, everyone will answer the call of their own self-interest and end up sticking a knife in your back. And it's always the people you trust the most that screw you over the worst.

A traffic light changed more quickly than he'd anticipated, and Jim stepped hard on the brakes, wincing a little from the squeal of metal on metal and rubber on pavement. Even with his senses deliberately blunted, the noise sent a jagged spike of discomfort through his ears. His hands closed convulsively on the steering wheel, so tightly that his fingers ached from the pressure. He consciously loosened his grip and tried to calm the anger that roiled in his gut and tightened the muscles in his neck and shoulders. As the cross-traffic whizzed past in front of him, he took several measured breaths. Again the echo of Blair's voice intruded on his awareness, exhorting him to breathe, setting a rhythm for him to follow, guiding him back to calm when his highly-prized control began to unravel.

An impatient honk signaled that the light had changed again, and Jim drove on. Some of the tension had left him, and he no longer felt the urge to put his fist through the nearest solid object. Without thinking, Jim glanced to the right, expecting to see his partner sitting there, turned just slightly in the passenger seat, his attention focused on the driver, checking to see that his words had had the intended effect. It was almost a shock to find the seat empty.

Of course it's empty, dumb-ass, he chided himself sourly. You pushed him away -- again.

Blair's face as he'd seen it last swam before him again, scolding him with the truth imprinted on saddened, remorseful features stripped of their youthful exuberance. His memory -- selective, flawed instrument that it was -- replayed Blair's words from yesterday, asking him, in essence, if Jim really thought that he would sell out his friend for mere money and fame. An older memory, poignant in its simplicity, answered the question: "It's about friendship."

You're a hell of a lot better at the friendship thing than I am, Chief, he thought, swallowing that bitter truth. He hadn't been much of a friend to Blair for months now -- not since he'd accused Blair of betraying his trust and his friendship when he wrote the introductory chapter of the dissertation. Blair hadn't betrayed anything, of course, but scientific objectivity had a way of kicking the crap out of Jim's self-image. Another of those fear-based responses, he acknowledged reluctantly. That was a phrase he'd learned to hate for one simple reason: it explained too well the impetus that drove him more often than he cared to admit.

He had plenty of fears now. He feared that Zeller would strike again before they found him, and that the assassin would claim more unintended victims. He feared that another of his friends would pay the price for his own inattention and his failure to stop Zeller, just as Simon and Megan had already done. He feared what his life would become now that his sentinel abilities had been publicly exposed.

He'd already had a taste of that: the scene in the bullpen just yesterday, the delight a stupid, petty crook had taken in being arrested by The Sentinel, the media's characterization of him as some sort of crusading Super-Cop. That taste of life in the spotlight was distinctly rotten.

But most of all he feared that his life was spiraling even more out of his control now than it had more than three years ago when his damned enhanced senses had suddenly reawakened and revved into high gear. How ironic, then, that both the source of whatever control he'd found over his senses and the near total destruction of control over his own life were so inextricably bound to Blair Sandburg -- his partner, his guide, his friend.

Jim shook his head abruptly, banishing the thoughts that chased themselves around inside his brain. Later, he told himself firmly. I'll sort it out later. Afterwards. When Zeller's rotting in a cell.

It was easy enough to maintain his resolve while he focused his attention on running down whatever fragmentary leads he had that might tell him where Zeller had gone to ground. But it was also a test of his patience, for it seemed that everyone -- from his informants on the street to his contacts in other law enforcement agencies -- had heard the reports of the Cascade Sentinel. He gave them the same short shrift he'd given his own colleagues in Major Crimes, turning aside their comments and questions with biting sarcasm and stony refusal to confirm the truth. He was relieved when Joel Taggert called to tell him that they had a lead on Zeller. He gladly abandoned his own fruitless searching to meet the senior detective.

The address he'd been given was unfamiliar, on a street given over to small businesses and older apartment buildings. It reminded him a bit of his own neighborhood. He saw Joel's car parked in the middle of a nondescript block and pulled up behind it. A moment later Joel was sliding into the passenger seat of the truck.

"Joel," Jim greeted him casually. "What's going on?"

The older man looked across at the row of shops as he explained, "Roger Hebert. He owns that hobby shop. Got a tip that Zeller's gonna meet him here at 3 o'clock."

Jim cast a quick glance at his watch. "It's nearly three now. Where'd you get the tip?"

"Anonymous. But word is that Hebert has a sideline business, building made to order weapons." Joel didn't have to explain the significance of that snippet of information.

Jim just looked thoughtful. "Hmm. Maybe that tip was meant to draw us out just like we did with Zeller." He pointed to a figure dressed in a suit and dark topcoat who walked briskly up the sidewalk and let himself into the shop. "There's our boy now."

"So what do you think?" Joel might have had seniority with the department, but most of his experience was with the bomb squad. And since Jim was considered the lead investigator on the Zeller matter, Joel was willing to defer to the other man's judgment. "Do we take him down or do we call for backup?"

Jim didn't like this situation. It reeked of a setup. But he wasn't about to let Zeller slip through his hands again if there was anything he could do to prevent it. He reached for the door handle and replied, "If he wants to play, let's let the games begin."

He unholstered his weapon and started across the street, glancing back at Joel to tell him to go around the corner and check for a back entrance. The words never left his mouth, though, as a rolling wave of sound and heat blasted outward from the hobby shop, knocking both men back a step and wringing a startled exclamation from Joel. Crouched down, one arm up to shield his face from shattered window glass and flying debris, Jim was glad that he had locked down his senses at "normal" levels. Bitter experience had taught him how vulnerable he was to unexpectedly strong stimuli when operating in "sentinel mode."

Beside him, he heard Joel on his cell phone, calling dispatch to request fire units and squad cars for traffic control. He straightened slowly, ears still ringing from the explosion, feeling the wash of heat from the fire that was now steadily consuming the building, and stared across at the destroyed shop. His conscience nudged him again, as sharply annoying as an elbow in the ribs. What clues might he have missed by shutting down his senses? Would he have been able to tell what was happening once Zeller disappeared through the shop door? Would he have known if anyone remained inside, caught in the conflagration? What telltale sound or crucial snippet of conversation might he have picked up? Could he have anticipated the event and perhaps intervened in time to stop it? Was he, in fact, shirking his responsibility to the city and the citizens he had sworn to protect by denying himself the use of his greatest asset?

He dismissed that line of speculation with a sharp shake of his head as he reached behind the truck seat for the emergency pack to pull out a handful of flares. There was nothing he could do to satisfy the need to know if Zeller had still been inside when the shop exploded, but he and Joel could at least keep curious onlookers at bay until the patrol units and fire department arrived on the scene. He trotted back to the nearest intersection and snapped the flares to life, dropping them across the roadway and stationing himself to turn away any motorists who might want to travel that street. An empty, overturned car smoldered in the middle of the pavement, making passage all but impossible.

Within minutes the fire crews had arrived and were pouring vast quantities of water onto the fire. At almost the same time the patrol units pulled up, angling their cars across the intersection to control access to the street. Jim turned back to the truck to wait and watch while the fire fighters brought the blaze under control.

The arson investigators moved in as soon as the flames were doused to begin sifting through the rubble to find out why the shop had exploded. It had been no accident, Jim knew. The timing was too convenient, the resulting destruction too complete for it to have been anything but deliberate.

He jerked his head up, startled, when Joel tapped on his window and peered in curiously. Rubbing a hand over his face, Jim rolled the window down and waited to hear what Joel had to say.

"You okay, Jim?" the older detective asked in concern.

Jim nodded. "Yeah, Joel. I'm fine. Just got a headache, that's all. It's been that kind of day."

"I hear that," Joel agreed. "Listen, I'm needed back to the station. Are you going to stay here till the arson guys finish up?"

"Just till they can give us a preliminary opinion," Jim replied. "Tucker and Ewing are in there now, checking out the debris."

"Ok, then. I'll see you later."

It wasn't long before the arson investigators sought him out and delivered their unofficial findings. As Jim had suspected, the explosion was deliberate.

"There's a body, too," Tucker added. "It's pretty well crisped, but the M.E. might be able to pull some prints. We called the coroner to come and collect it."

"Only one body?" Jim asked.

"That's all we've found so far. It's possible there may be more buried in the rubble. We found this one near the back door."

Jim nodded acknowledgment. "Let me know if you find anything else."

Leaving the arson team to complete their work, Jim headed back to the station, his thoughts still turning over the many unanswered questions left in the wake of the explosion and fire. The one uppermost in his mind was the identity of the victim. Was it Zeller? Hebert? Some anonymous unfortunate intended to throw off their investigation? For the moment, though, it didn't matter. He would go on with his investigation under the assumption that Zeller was still alive and still a threat. He had no choice in that. He'd let his guard down once, let himself be distracted, and others had suffered as a result. He wouldn't make that mistake again.

He couldn't help but notice that his fellow detectives gave him a noticeably wide berth upon his return to the bullpen. It wasn't that they ignored him exactly. They passed along necessary information, shared the uniformly negative results of their own inquiries, asked and answered questions pertinent to the investigation. But the easy camaraderie that had grown over recent years among the Major Crime team had changed. A disturbing sense of deja vu swept over him as he watched and listened to the ebb and flow of activity around him. They were treating him much as they had when he worked alone, refusing to be partnered, holding himself at a distance from anything more than superficial involvement with his colleagues.

Jim dropped wearily into his chair, stunned by the realization that the events of a mere 24 hours had undone the progress of years. His eyes closed briefly, hiding the regret that swelled and beat at the corners of his awareness like the wings of a trapped bird. Witness the demise of another Sandburg feat of wizardry -- taking a detached, no-nonsense cop and turning him into something recognizably human.

The headache that had blossomed in the wake of the explosion intensified, as if his own chaotic thoughts were suddenly trying to batter their way out of his skull. With a grimace, he yanked open the desk drawer where, among other things, he kept the bottle of aspirin. He reached toward it, only to freeze in mid-motion, staring at the contents of the drawer as if he'd suddenly found a live snake. One of Sandburg's ever-present library books, put there for safe keeping while they'd gone to lunch a few days before, lay just inches from his outstretched hand. Apparently Blair had forgotten it was there, but Jim recalled him saying that he needed to finish several chapters before his class on Friday. He wondered if Blair had ever had a chance to do the reading.

Aspirin forgotten, Jim picked up the phone and dialed the loft, not knowing where Blair would be now, but figuring that, if nothing else, he could leave a message on the machine. There was no answer, not even from Naomi, who had still been there when Jim left earlier. Blair's office phone likewise went unanswered, and he had apparently turned his cell phone off. With a sigh, Jim pulled the thick volume from the drawer and set it on the corner of his desk. If Blair came by the station, he would surely see it. If he didn't, Jim would simply take it home with him when he left.

For several moments, his hand lingered on the book, his fingertips unconsciously mapping the smooth grain of the engraved binding, his nose picking up the rich scent of the leather and the faint mustiness of age from the yellowed pages. His sensory "on" switches, it seemed, had developed a mind of their own.

He drew his hand away and reached for the aspirin again, pushing back his chair to go and refill his empty coffee cup. Joel intercepted him as he came out of the break room, cup in hand, and Jim quickly brought him up to date on the arson investigators' preliminary findings from the hobby shop.

"The arson boys said the explosion was deliberately rigged -- set off by some gunpowder stored in the back," he reported with terse economy.

Joel had also received a call from Tucker and knew most of the basic facts. "Yeah, and we have a body burned beyond recognition. It could be a day or two before we get a positive ID. You know, you don't walk away from an explosion like that. It's got to be Zeller. And Roger Hebert's missing, too."

Jim had already weighed the possible answers. With so few facts to go on, almost any theory was as good as another. "So, what do you think? Hebert took Zeller out of the play to cut his links to Gunderson. Took the dough from the hit and is on permanent vacation somewhere?" He himself didn't sound convinced.

Whatever Joel might have said in response was interrupted when Rafe appeared at the door and announced with barely contained excitement, "Hey, guys! Sandburg's on TV. He's giving some sort of press conference."

Jim was on the move within the space of a heartbeat, his stomach clenching uncomfortably around too much coffee and too little solid food. God, Sandburg! he thought in near desperation. What the hell are you trying to do?

A large group had already gathered around the television, but they parted to make room for him near the screen, only Joel remaining close. Jim felt the intense, curious gazes on his back as he watched Blair make his way to the podium and settle himself to speak.

The camera lights were not particularly kind to the man pinned in their unforgiving glare. They accentuated the shadows beneath his eyes and the lines of fatigue and stress etched across his forehead. With his long hair pulled back, Jim could easily see the rapid beat of the pulse in Blair's throat and temples. But the familiar voice was steady, and there was resolve in the set of Blair's features. Jim forced himself to follow the words more closely, rather than simply measure the timbre and cadence of his partner's voice for clues to his state of mind.

" the author of that manuscript, I am the only one qualified to fully illuminate the speculation and sensationalism this story has generated, and I intend to do just that."

Jim's senses narrowed, zoomed in on the familiar face filling the television screen, until the room in which he stood and the bodies arrayed behind and beside him ceased to exist. No one made a sound, as Blair's voice filled the tense air.

"There is a very simple reason why "The Sentinel" by Blair Sandburg was never submitted for publication, or even for review by my dissertation committee. It is a work of fiction and therefore unworthy of that attention."

The assembled watchers released a collective breath that was half sigh of relief, half surprised exclamation. Curious eyes turned toward Jim, but his attention was still riveted to the screen, and he spared them not so much as a glance. His face gave nothing away, set in the impassive mask that hid any hint of his thoughts.

Blair's voice drew them back into his own meticulously constructed fiction, summarizing his earlier research, his intentions regarding the dissertation, and his eventual recognition that he would be unable to carry out those intentions.

" is for that reason that I recently submitted to my committee an alternative dissertation proposal focusing on hierarchical sub-cultures, including the modern police sub-culture, as dynamic representations of archaic, tribal societal structures."

The significance of those words filtered through Jim's awareness, and he couldn't help wondering just when Sandburg had come to that decision. When had he submitted his new research proposal? Yesterday? The day before? Last week? Last month? The question so consumed him that he largely missed Blair's blithe dismissal of detailed accounts of Jim's use of his senses as fabrications based on documented fact. He dragged his attention back to the screen, and the next words he heard filled him with an uncomfortable mixture of pride and shame.

"I wouldn't say Detective Ellison is 'average.' He is an extraordinary man, and an extraordinary cop, but not by virtue of enhanced senses or any other superhuman attributes. His training and his experience, his intellect and instincts, his dedication and his determination to protect and serve the people of Cascade -- those are the qualities that make Jim Ellison the consummate law enforcement professional that he is."

At that moment, Jim didn't feel like a consummate professional anything. He had to look away from the steady gaze of those familiar, observant eyes, even knowing that Blair couldn't see that he was watching. The generosity of his partner's actions, the knowledge that Blair was lying through his teeth into the cameras and microphones trained on him, and all in an effort to salvage one man's life, to once more bury the secret that should never have been revealed, made Jim feel acutely petty and small-minded, selfish and self-centered. He heard the mental echoes of his colleagues' teasing mantra of "we're not worthy." I'm not worthy, Chief, he thought with bitter self-reproach. I'm not worthy of this friendship you keep patching up every time I go and do something stupid and rip it full of holes.

He looked up again, hearing his partner's calm, reasonable answers to every question thrown at him, seeing the confidence and the sense of "rightness" in Blair's tired but determined face. He couldn't quite suppress a surge of pride at the masterful way in which his partner handled the reporters' questions, initiating his subtle but effective counterstrikes against Sid Graham and the newsman, Robert Drake, who had orchestrated that overblown coverage on the noon news. He knew that he shouldn't have been surprised. There had been so many occasions where Blair had proven himself more than capable of talking his way out of the tightest corners. This was just one more demonstration of his remarkable facility with words and his talent for taking obfuscation to a high art form.

The crowd of watchers behind Jim began to thin as soon as Blair stepped back from the podium, the press conference seemingly over. Only a handful were still there when he chose to answer that one last query, how he came to choose Jim Ellison as his own personal Sentinel.

"The answer to that one is simple. Since beginning my research with the Cascade PD, I've been associated most closely with Detective Ellison. He is a man I respect and admire greatly, and someone it has been my privilege and my pleasure to call 'friend.' Every fantasy has a hero. And who better to fill that role than your best friend?"

Once again a wave of shame and unworthiness swept over Jim. He closed his eyes briefly, opening them to stare at the screen where Sid Graham was striving valiantly to dodge the reporters who accosted him in the wake of Blair's words. Jim didn't really want to hear anything the publisher had to say, and he was relieved when Joel reached over to turn off the television. He stood unmoving and largely unresponsive to the casual words tossed his way by the braver of his colleagues.

"Makes a hell of a lot more sense than what the reporters were saying."

"I figured there had to be some explanation for all this."

"Sandburg really let that guy Drake have it right between the eyes, didn't he?"

Jim looked up from his contemplation of the scarred, scuffed floor beneath his feet and saw Joel watching him steadily, assessing his mood and his reaction to what they had all just witnessed. Something in the older detective's dark eyes suggested that he knew that Blair's carefully chosen words held both truth and deception. He chose not to challenge Jim, though, asking only, "Do you think this will end it?"

Jim inhaled a long, deep breath and let it out again slowly. "I don't know, Joel," he answered with a shrug. "I hope so. It's gone on long enough, and it's caused way more trouble than anyone could have ever imagined."

"Not the least of that being the trouble between you and Blair," Joel surmised.

"Yeah," Jim admitted reluctantly. "That, too."

Joel regarded his fellow detective in silence for a moment, then suggested, "You should talk to him, you know. Let him know that you don't blame him for any of this. He's been beating himself up about it ever since the news broke."

Jim leveled an unreadable look at Joel. "What makes you think I don't blame him for it?" he asked, but more in the manner of curiosity than protest.

"Because you're smarter than that," Joel replied. "All you have to do is open your eyes to know that Blair is the last person to have wanted something like this to happen. Now, I wasn't there when all this got started, but I think I know Blair well enough to know when he's telling the truth. He didn't do anything wrong, Jim. Naomi did when she let someone else read his work without Blair's permission. This Sid Graham fellow did when he released parts of the manuscript to the media. But Blair? All he did was write a tribute to a friend. And I think the way he handled himself today was a pretty damned good example of damage control."

Jim nodded acknowledgment of Joel's assessment. "Yeah, he's pretty good at that sort of thing," he said, almost to himself. He was still standing there, staring at the now blank screen when Joel left. Once again he'd underestimated his partner's dedication, the depth of the friendship that had grown out of what had begun as a research project. He'd let his innate distrust color his judgment and fuel his doubt that anyone -- even Sandburg -- would act from any motivation except self-interest.

Jim finally left the room, only to be confronted with Henri Brown coming in with Jack Bartley in tow. The frown that had previously been directed at himself now shifted targets. "What's this all about?"

Brown's expression said clearly that he was not happy with his charge. "He refuses to stay in the safe house."

Bartley displayed his usual cocky self-assurance. "Well, I heard you blew up my assassin."

"That's not been confirmed yet," Jim said flatly. He might dislike Bartley personally, but he didn't disagree with what the man was trying to accomplish, and Jim wasn't going to let Bartley's attitude get him killed if he could prevent it.

"Well, it's enough confirmation for me. I'm not gonna sit on this story. I was dead. Now I'm alive, and the people gotta know it before the vote."

Bartley's burly assistant thrust out his barrel chest and announced with a satisfied smirk, "We called a press conference and a rally for eight o'clock."

Joel, whose attention had been attracted by Bartley's unexpected appearance spoke up. "No, no, no. I'm sorry. We can't let you do that."

"We don't need your permission," the assistant retorted. "We've already got it from the commissioner and the mayor."

Bartley's face shaped itself into a smug grin. "I out-Hoffa'ed Hoffa. Who wouldn't vote for that?"

Jim ran a hand over his face, wanting to toss Bartley and his assistant into a holding cell for their own good. He was relieved when Joel assumed control of the situation, steering the two men toward Simon's empty office and encouraging them to make their final arrangements from the safe confines of the police station. Jim sighed and returned to his desk. He sat staring at the phone for several moments before he picked it up and dialed Blair's office number at the university. Since the press conference had been held on campus, he assumed that Blair would return to that haven when it was done. He was more than a little surprised when a woman's voice answered, until he realized whose voice he was hearing.

"Naomi, it's Jim. Is Blair there in his office?"

"No, Jim. You just missed him." Naomi's voice held honest regret. "You saw the press conference?"

"Yeah, I did. Look, Naomi, I need to talk to Blair. Do you know where he was headed?"

"He said he was going to the hospital to check on Simon and Megan, then I think he planned to come to the station later. Is anything wrong?"

Jim stared into the distance, not really focusing on anything. "No, nothing's wrong. Thanks, Naomi." He replaced the phone carefully in its cradle and stood up, reaching for his coat. Suddenly, checking on Simon and Megan seemed like a very good idea.

As soon as the elevator doors opened, Jim saw Blair standing at the nurse's station down the hall. He was talking with a doctor whose expression was severe and who seemed to be doing a lot of head shaking. Jim felt a knot of ice settle into the pit of his stomach. Please, God, he prayed silently, let them be alive. He was somewhat encouraged by the fact that Blair looked more annoyed than distressed. If he'd received bad news about either of their injured friends, his reaction would be very different.

The doctor waved a hand dismissively and walked away, leaving Blair to stare after him. After a moment he swung around slowly, as if not quite certain what to do next, and the movement brought him into position to see Jim coming toward him. The younger man didn't move as Jim approached, but he managed a faint shadow of a smile in greeting.

Jim gestured down the hall where the doctor had disappeared. "Any news?" he asked hopefully.

"Um, yeah. Sort of." Blair shrugged and lifted his hands in an indeterminate gesture. "He wouldn't tell me very much. I'm not family, you know. But they're both out of surgery and stable. It looks like they'll be okay."

"That's good news." Jim nodded.

Blair mirrored the movement and added, "No visitors yet. Maybe tomorrow."

"That's not surprising." Jim rocked slowly back on his heels then settled once more into a more solid stance, hands jammed deep into the pockets of his jacket. Now that he was face-to-face with Blair, he didn't know how to speak the words he needed to say.

Blair spoke again into the awkward silence. "So...I heard you got Zeller."

Jim shook his head and looked away, not sure what would show in his expression if he looked directly at Blair and not wanting to see what might be looking back at him from his partner's eyes. "Maybe. We don't know for sure." His voice trailed off and he pulled in a long breath. "Chief, we need to talk," he said after a moment.

"Oh. OK." Blair looked up at him then and his Adam's apple bobbed in an audible swallow. "I guess this isn't the best place for it, huh? You want to go down to the cafeteria and get some coffee then?" He started toward the elevator, and Jim fell into step beside him. Neither man spoke.

When they reached the lower floor Jim stopped suddenly. "Let's just go outside and walk a bit," he suggested. "I really don't want any coffee right now."

Blair nodded and turned to follow him down the corridor and out to the private garden where hospital patients could enjoy the fresh air. His expression was wary, and he hunched his shoulders slightly against the freshening breeze that plucked at his collar and lifted loose strands of hair from around his face.

Jim took them down a neatly edged path between hedges and clumps of fading flowers. "I owe you an apology, Chief," he said. "These last few days...all this media really did a good job of rattling my cage, and I took it out on you. That wasn't right, and I'm sorry."

For once, Blair didn't jump in with a response of his own. He knew that apologies didn't come easily from this man. Jim Ellison was not one to admit to being wrong. His pride -- some said his arrogance -- didn't allow it. That he was willing to do so now, of his own accord, spoke volumes that Blair suspected would never find their way into words if he was interrupted. So he didn't interrupt.

"Ever since I left you here this morning," Jim went on, walking slowly among the greenery, casting occasional sidelong glances at his silent partner, "I've been thinking about everything that's been going on. Not just this mess with your dissertation, but everything."

Silence descended again, spinning out as Jim struggled to put his thoughts into words that wouldn't sound hopelessly trite or sappy or just plain stupid. His teeth worried at his lower lip, and a frown creased his high forehead. And still he walked, knowing that Blair kept pace at his side.

Feeling the need to prompt him a little, Blair asked neutrally, "Any conclusions come out of all that thinking?"

"Yeah, a few." Jim's words were spoken so low that Blair almost didn't hear them from only a foot away. He stopped abruptly and turned to face the younger man. The stone mask was gone, leaving his face a naked reflection of regret and remorse. "Only one that counts, though. The fact is, Chief, for the last three years you've been the best friend I've ever had in my life. Sometimes I think you know me better than I know myself. You see what's happening when I start getting off track and you nudge me back in the right direction. You push me to confront things I'd just as soon leave alone. From day one, you've saved my life and my sanity, and you've stuck with me through some really tough times. You didn't have to do all that. You didn't have to follow me into ugly crime scenes and shoot-outs and kidnappings and all the other crap we've been through. You didn't have to get yourself mixed up in stuff that no civilian should ever have to deal with. That wasn't your job. You could have chucked it all and walked out at any time. But you didn't; you hung in there."

Blair started to interrupt then, but Jim silenced him by placing both hands on Blair's shoulders. He went on before Blair could utter a word, "Chief...Blair...I saw the press conference. I heard what you said about changing your dissertation, and I think I can take a pretty good guess when you made that decision. You know, if I didn't already feel like a horse's ass, I would have when I heard that." He gave the tense shoulders beneath his hands a gentle squeeze. "You rearranged your whole life, took risks, went places and did things you never would have done if you hadn't been so dedicated to this sentinel thing. You made some tough choices and turned down opportunities that maybe you should have taken. There have been a lot of times when you've put my needs ahead of everything else. All that should have told me just how far you're willing to go to be and do what you think I need, to the exclusion of what's best for you. I didn't try to stop you, Chief, because I was selfish enough to want you there with me. The only times I've felt like I was really in control of these crazy senses of mine was when I knew you were there to help me deal with whatever problems might suddenly spring up out of nowhere. I've been dragging you around like my own personal security blanket, and you let me do that, even when I dropped you in the dirt and stepped all over you. And now, because you're still taking care of my needs first, you don't even have your dissertation to show for it."

He dropped his hands then, and stepped away, turning slightly so that Blair could see his face only in profile. The mask was back, shielding him once more. "I'm not sure I know what to do with that kind of loyalty," he admitted, his tone edging toward bitterness. "I sure as hell don't feel like I've done much to deserve it."

Blair watched his friend's face for a few moments, seeing the muscle in the strong jaw tighten and jerk. The spate of words, it seemed, was over, and for perhaps the first time in his life, Blair wasn't certain how to respond. He considered trying to lighten the intensity of the moment with a flippant query of "who are you and what have you done with the real Jim Ellison," but decided that the soul baring his friend had just endured merited more than that.

"Jim, I'll write my dissertation," he said finally. "It just won't be about sentinels. That doesn't mean your story won't ever be heard. But it can wait for a time when it can't hurt you any more. You know, if I'd been honest with myself, I'd have realized a long time ago that I could never publish the diss in your working lifetime. Hell, I knew that after Brackett figured out what you are. But I wasn't going to let go of something -- of someone -- I'd spent half my life looking for so soon after I'd found it. I'm just sorry I let things get so far out of hand. I put you at risk, man. And that's something I never, ever wanted to do."

Jim shot a sidelong, assessing look at his partner. "I don't get it," he said. "If you've known for so long that you wouldn't be able to publish your sentinel research, why'd you stick with it so long? Why put yourself through everything that's happened?"

Blair answered him with a small, wry smile. It was his turn to make a confession. "If it was just the research, I might have gotten out a long time ago. Yeah, I know I made some sort of smart-ass comments about not being satisfied with the merry-go-round after I'd taken a spin on the roller coaster. And that's true, as far as it goes. But what really makes that roller coaster worth it is the company I've had on the ride. I told you back when we went to Peru to find Simon and Daryl that it was about friendship. But even that's not all of it." He placed himself where he could see Jim clearly, and Jim could see him, before he continued, "Jim, you are more than just a research subject, more than just a friend, even. You're like family, man. That's why I stayed. You needed me, whether you wanted to admit it or not, and I couldn't just walk away from that. I didn't want to walk away from it, because I'd have been walking away from you. See, Jim, as much as I thought you needed me to help keep your senses in line, I needed you just as much -- not as a source of research material, but for that sense of belonging and purpose that I've never felt so strongly about anyone or anything else in my whole life."

When, after several moments, Jim made no response, Blair lifted a shoulder in a half shrug and gestured back up the path. "Guess I've kept you from your work long enough," he commented, trying to keep the deep pang of loss he'd felt ever since Jim first spoke of eschewing his senses, going back to being just a regular cop, from showing in his voice. He lifted a hand in a farewell wave as he took a backward step toward the hospital. "You be careful out there, big guy. Until you know for sure whether Zeller died in that explosion, you don't want to let your guard down."

"I'll be careful, Chief," Jim promised. He wanted to say more. He wanted to ask Blair to come back to the station with him, to be his partner again -- at least until they knew what kind of fallout they still faced from the commissioner and the chief of police. He held no illusion that Blair's press conference would put an end to their questions.

He bit the words back, though, and he watched in silence as Blair finally turned around slowly and retreated back up the path. Until you know for sure whether Zeller died in that explosion, you don't want to let your guard down, Blair had said. Until he knew whether Zeller was dead, he wouldn't risk Blair's life by asking him to stay. His thoughts strayed upstairs, to Simon and Megan, injured because Zeller had targeted Jim and missed. Seeing them in pain, their blood spilling out in spreading crimson waves, was bad enough. He wondered if Blair had heard the message Jim had tried to send him earlier as they both stood and watched their friends' struggle against the effects of their wounds. It's not a good idea to be around me right now, he'd said. That much hadn't changed, despite the words he and Blair had spoken to each other. He didn't think he'd be able to stand it if Blair were to become collateral damage in Zeller's private little war.